Sermon for Year A, Proper 21
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 28, 2014
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
There seem to be two distinct moving parts to this morning’s Gospel lesson.
The first is this argument about authority --
Who has authority, who gets to speak with authority, and what it all means.
Jesus doesn’t need to engage in an argument about power, but for some reason others do.
So they have that argument.
And then the other moving part is embedded within the first.
It’s a direct statement that Jesus slips in to the conversation.
He says to the local authorities, the ruling religious elite, the local know-it-alls --
He says, When it comes to any sort of reward from God,
You can expect to be placed in the back of the line,
After the tax collectors and the prostitutes,
Because here I’ve been this whole time,
And you didn’t see me for what I was, but this other crowd did, and they get it.
And this is typical behavior of him, isn’t it?
I wonder what it did to their brains
To see Jesus hanging out with tax collectors and prostitutes.
Hanging out, in other words, with those society deemed least worthy of his attention.
When having his attention was probably the best feeling in the world --
Like having a spotlight on you, like being the only other person in the world with him.
I wonder what it did to them to see him acting that way,
Cavorting with hoodlums and drunks and assorted heels.
“How can a guy who knows so much and is so wise
And has all these miracles attributed to him --
How can this guy waste his time with such lowlifes?”
It goes straight into the heart of the question that we heard last week;
Remember that question?
The master hires all these folks throughout the day to come and work,
And at the end of the day he pays them all the same,
And the ones who started work at the crack of dawn are mad at the ones who came later.
They’re mad because they thought they were going to get bonuses. Remember?
And the master says to them, What’s your problem?
It’s my money. Let me do what I want with it.
Then he says, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
Maybe Jesus would have been considered ritually “unclean” by the authorities
For hanging around with ritually unclean people;
But the real sullying, the real dirt that was hard to clean off, was the jealousy they felt
When they saw him being with people they’d never be caught dead talking to.
Envious, jealous, in the face of his generosity.
I think it can be said that God, in Jesus Christ, shows a clear preference
For those who have suffered a little in this life, or suffered a lot, maybe.
I think God is conferring authority -- I mean real authority -- on those who have suffered.
Now, I don’t think God wants anyone to suffer.
But if there’s one thing that’s clear from Scripture, it’s this:
That God redeems whatever pain we can offer up out of our deep flaws,
And turns it into something usable for God’s purposes in the long run.
And sometimes we get to bear witness to that, and sometimes we don’t.
But just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not true.
Again, I don’t think God means for us to suffer.
I don’t think God causes suffering or puts us to a test to see how much we can handle.
I don’t think God wants you to have to suffer one minute more whatever it is that’s stifling you.
But once the chips are already down and the experiences have already been had, ...
Well, what are you going to do with them,
But give them to God, who’s strong enough to transform them?
I mean, really, if we could transform all the pain in our lives on our own strength,
Wouldn’t we have done that already?
And so in real solidarity, Jesus hangs out with those who are suffering.
Not complicated. He just hangs out.
He actively transforms their pain into something better.
And later on, he pays for it, doesn’t he? He hangs, and he himself suffers.
Those with human power and authority have enough of it, and they make him pay.
As if to say, You can only subvert the natural order for so long, and then you must pay a price.
But even his suffering, at our jealous hands, -- even that, God redeems for good.
How -- wha -- Isn’t that “a wonderful and sacred mystery”?
Think of what you would want to do to anyone who hurt your son or daughter.
You know, years ago, Richard Pryor did this little set at a comedy club.
He did this bit about God coming to pick up his boy -- you know, like, after school?
He said God showed up and was looking around for Jesus.
“Where’s Jesus? Where’s my kid?”
And they all just kind of looked down at the dirt.
“Um. Well. Okay. See, the thing is, we kind of killed him.”
And God said, “You killed my boy? And you worship me?”
He said, “I tell you what. I’m going to give you LOVE.
And if you mess that up, ...”
Now, I know that’s Richard Pryor, and I know he isn’t on our calendar of saints,
But who cares?
Because he has it right.
The story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ
Is the story of the love of God overcoming every attempt by jealous people
To define failure in a spot outside of their own circle by imposing suffering on it.
“The way up is the way down.”
Lots of folks have picked up on this pattern over the years.
One of the brightest lights of the 20th Century, F. Scott Fitzgerald, wrote,
“I talk with the authority of failure.”
“I talk with the authority of failure” is a good line, and it’s true, as we’ve seen,
But the world doesn’t want to read it on your business card.
It’s punchy and we might chuckle at it with recognition,
But unless you’re paid by the word as a copywriter, it won’t trade in the marketplace.
What trades is not failure, not suffering, but tangible power and knowledge-based authority
That is valuable because it can be quickly deployed.
What trades and what has power is steel and guns and flashy infotainment.
Whoever has power and authority is whoever holds the badge or the office.
So I ask: Isn’t it just crazy that All-Mighty God
Comes into this life as a dirt-dwelling day-laborer
From a cheap little town and a powerless, oppressed people
Toiling on the margins of the most powerful empire in human history?
Isn’t it supposed to say something to us
That This Is The Christ -- “a man acquainted with sorrows” --
A misfit man spurned and misunderstood and disowned by his own? --
A man without a country or a place to lay his head?
Doesn’t that mean something?
Doesn’t it mean something that our fair town just brims with suffering of all kinds?
Doesn’t it mean we need to open our eyes and look at the worst suffering around us
If we want to have any chance at all of seeing Jesus?
Because he’s already shown us -- that’s where we’re going to find him.